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The circular economy – where rPET becomes the raw material for the production of new packaging – is an exciting and elegant solution to the challenges facing the packaging industry.
According to expert forecasts, the demand for polymer packaging will only continue to grow, as it is convenient.At the same time, product life-cycle studies show that, compared with alternative types of packaging, PET has a smaller ecological footprint.
Taken together, these facts illustrate a circular economy’s potential as a solution. Nevertheless, its successful implementation depends not only on the packaging industry, but also brands, governments and consumers. Only a joint effort will help develop a phased strategy for the practical implementation of a circular economy.
At each point in the chain of the creation and use of polymer packaging, there are adjustments that can be made, either directly or indirectly. And if each participant carries out improvements in the sphere of our direct influence, the effectiveness of these combined actions will be far greater.
Resin suppliers and recyclers
One of the biggest contributions PET producers and recyclers can make is in both improving existing mechanical recycling methods, and developing alternative approaches, such as chemical recycling.
Promising recent initiatives have successfully reduced PET to its essential constituents, or “monomers”. This will allow us to easily eliminate colorants, additives and any impurities, which can then themselves be reused in a completely closed loop. Such processes would vastly reduce the amount of difficult-to-recycle PET packaging, which usually ends up in landfill or leaks into the marine environment.
But despite many successful laboratory tests, today’s chemical recycling sector is still small–scale, and requires innovation and investment for it to have a positive impact in the industry and on the environment.
Packaging producers and brand owners
Plastic packaging manufacturers are in a position to reduce both the weight of packaging and increase the amount of rPET used in its production. The efficiency of plastic packaging has been continuously improved over the years: a 1.5 litre PET bottle weighed 75g in the 1980s; today it weighs 23g. This light–weighting saves resin, energy, and CO2 emissions over the course of the entire life–cycle of the bottle, from production to delivery to the consumer. And thanks to modern technical capabilities and investment in the latest equipment, packaging manufacturers can now produce bottles from 100 per cent rPET.
Plastic packaging producers, in collaboration with food and beverage producers, should strive to improve packaging recyclability. And by scaling back the use of colourants and additives, they can contribute to an increase in collection quotas and the quality of recycled PET, even if it means reducing the attractiveness and uniqueness of packaging design.
Governments must both provide a clear legislative framework to stimulate the collection and recycling of plastic, while making rPET use economically attractive to manufacturers.
EU directives are key criteria for regulating plastic packaging legislation in European countries. Without the efficient collection and recycling of plastic waste, the quality and quantity of rPET will not reach the targets established by the EU Directive. Improving the quality and increasing the collection of polymer packaging will make recycling economically attractive, which means the effective collection of plastic is an important step in the development of the circular economy.
EU directives also impose obligations on EU member states to raise both consumer awareness of environmental plastics pollution, and consumer participation in solving it. After all, consumers of plastic packaging should also take responsibility. Each bottle left on the beach or thrown into the wrong bin affects the level of environmental pollution. It is important to be consistent and adhere to the values of a developed society: to sort and dispose of waste properly.
It is necessary that we both halt the entry of plastics into the ecosystem, and eliminate the existing consequences of the poor handling of polymer packaging. This is a global problem that cannot be solved without the support of developed countries. The participation of private companies in clean-up activities will reduce the environmental impact, and publicising these actions via media campaigns will attract new volunteers, and highlight to consumers the importance of taking care in handling packaging waste.
The boundaries of our environmental impact are wider than we imagine. We must all take responsibility inside – and, where possible, outside – our direct sphere of influence if we are to see the result we need.